You can run through a tornado, watch a cell divide and prove that yawning is contagious. But if you want to experience the wonders of San Francisco's Exploratorium in its original home, you only have a few more days to do it.
After 43 years, the iconic museum of science, art and human perception is moving from the Palace of Fine Arts to Pier 15 in the center of the city's waterfront redevelopment. The last day to visit the Exploratorium in its original home is Jan. 2, the last of its Free First Wednesdays. It reopens April 17 on the Embarcadero.
Located between the Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf, the ambitious, nine-acre, $300 million project triples the museum's space. With easy access to public transportation, including ferry service from the East Bay, the move is expected to double the museum's annual attendance, exhibit developers say.
For the more than 300 employees and millions of visitors, the move is bittersweet. It may be cold and dark inside that 110,000-square-foot Palace of Fine Arts warehouse but most people who grew up in the Bay Area have warm memories of school field trips they took there as a child, where they dissected cow eyeballs, suspended their senses in the Tactile Dome, or participated in one of 600 interactive exhibits. It is widely recognized as the first children's museum in the country, if not the world.
"Third grade," says Robin Collins, a Turlock mother who recalls chasing her friends around the Palace's majestic pillars as a little girl. On Thursday, she brought her sons, Matt, 9, and Nick, 8, to the museum as a Christmas present.
"It's fun and educational," she says. "Any time you can have both of those things you've won."
At a neighboring exhibit, three generations of the Weatherford family hovered over the Turntable, an exhibit that tests motion when participants toss or roll plastic disks over spinning metal.
Dale Weatherford, of Mountain View, has had a membership to the museum since 1990, when she began home schooling her children, then 6 and 8. "This is where we came to learn about science every two weeks," Weatherford says. Now, she brings her 4-year-old granddaughter, Rinnah.
"I'm so glad we made it out before the move. I'm sure the new location will be great, but it won't be here," she says, looking around the warehouse, which served as a garage space for Army jeeps and a fire station for San Francisco Fire Engine Company No. 6 before Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer opened it as a museum in 1969. His exhibit, Coupled Pendulum, which he built in 1981 using hardware-store pipes and a staff member's kitchen table, is the oldest piece in the museum.
Relocating such iconic pieces makes the move to Pier 15 a massive undertaking. The fish, small critters, and the big tree in the Living Systems department completed their move Dec. 17. In January, the staff and 600 hands-on exhibits will move into the new space, which will house 150 more experiences than the Palace of Fine Arts location. A few exhibits, including the Sound Column, a musical instrument whose resonating chamber is a 60-foot-high room in a column of the Palace's rotunda, cannot be moved and will remain for future rotunda explorers.
The main level of the new space will be dedicated to exhibits while the second level will be used for staff, research and development activities, and visiting professionals. Three new clusters -- buildings within the building -- have been added inside, each respectful of the historic truss work and walls of the existing structure. The breathtaking San Francisco Bay views will serve as an inspiration for the artists and scientists who create the exhibits.
"The outdoor space allows us to be site-specific in our thinking," says Tom Rockwell, director of public exhibition. "We can now use the wind, the sun hitting the water, and the view and angles of the (Bay) Bridge in our exhibits."
The Embarcadero location may offer the Exploratorium more physical visibility, but it has been a global leader in science and education for decades. Eighty percent of the world's science centers, from the New York Hall of Science to the Natural History Museum in London, use Exploratorium exhibits, programs or ideas. And, each year, the museum reaches 450,000 educators through its teaching programs, according to Quynh Tran of the museum's press office.
With twice the number of classrooms and triple the capacity for teacher professional development, the new location could help the Exploratorium influence millions of teachers for generations to come.
"We want everyone who comes through that door to be engaged in critical thinking," Rockwell says.
Pier 15 at a glance
What will the new Exploratorium look like? Here are some facts:
The site: It's between Fisherman's Wharf and the Ferry Building, in the heart of San Francisco's waterfront redevelopment.
The grounds: The 800-foot-long structure extends over San Francisco Bay -- the length of nearly three football fields.
The view: It adds 1.5 acres of publicly accessible waterfront space with cafes, food carts and a store.
The layout: It links urban and marine environments with two pedestrian bridges, allowing the public to circumnavigate Pier 15.
The size: At 330,000 square feet, the nine-acre campus has three times the space of its original home.
The exhibits: It will offer nearly 600 hands-on exhibits, including 150 new experiences created by artists and scientists -- 25 percent more than at the Palace of Fine Arts location.
The location: At the hub of all modes of public transportation, the new location is expected to double annual attendance to 1.2 million visitors.
The vision: Its sustainability goal is to become the largest net-zero-energy museum in the U.S., if not the world.